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22 November 2019

Video Games Against Climate Change

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

On 23 September, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the launch of the Playing for the Planet alliance, an initiative signed by 21 video game companies with the aim of “harnessing the power of their platforms to act in response to the climate crisis.” The signatories include market leaders such as Microsoft, Google Stadia, Ubisoft, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Rovio and Sports Interactive, among others, which bring together a total of more than 970 million players. The main objective of the alliance is to reduce CO2 emissions by 30 million tons by 2030. Concrete proposals include not only the introduction of climate issues into the design and content of games, but also other environmental measures, from packaging to the management of waste and energy, as well as planting millions of trees.

The truth is that it is hard to find a loudspeaker today that reaches such massive audiences as video games. According to data from the alliance itself, one in three people in the world practices this form of entertainment. For UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, “this makes them a hugely important partner in addressing the climate emergency.” Climate change experts have welcomed the alliance: climatologist Andrew Dessler, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, tells OpenMind that the initiative “can be valuable.” “As the parent of two teenage boys, I can confirm that they spend a lot of their time playing video games, so I think video games could be a terrific way to raise awareness.”

Serious games

In fact, and although the most popular face of video games has accustomed us to zombie killings or indoor sports, concern about the weather has been present for some years in this field through so-called serious games, which seek something beyond pure entertainment. In 2006, Red Redemption and the BBC launched Climate Challenge, a game whose goal was to manage resources and energy in Europe in order to reach the year 2100 while avoiding a climate catastrophe. In 2011, Fate of the World, also from Red Redemption, was based on climate prediction models developed by Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford University. More recently, The Climate Trail, Future Delta 2.0 or, above all, the games developed by the University of Washington platform EarthGames, among others, focus specifically on the issue of climate, but franchises as popular as Civilization or SimCity have also been launched into the environmental arena.

The Climate Trail is one of the video games that focus on the issue of climate. Credit: The Climate Trail

But despite this growing interest in climate awareness through gaming, experts often warn of one obvious thing: in order for a video game to be popular in the classroom, it must first and foremost be fun. This quality would be among the guidelines that an international team of researchers has developed as key attributes when designing video games against climate change. “The framework can be used as guidance to develop new games but also as a tool to analyse the engagement capacity of current games,” explains the first author of the study, Tania Ouariachi, an expert in games, communication and environmental education at the Hanze University Of Applied Sciences in Groningen (The Netherlands) to OpenMind. As an example, Ouariachi and her team are applying it to the evaluation of We-Energy Game, an online and offline game about the energy transition.

However, the experts themselves recognise that between good intentions and reality there are still gaps to be bridged. José Gutiérrez, co-author of the Ouariachi study and professor of Research and Diagnostic Methods in Education at the University of Granada (Spain) tells OpenMind: “The world of video games about climate change still has a very sectorial and secondary interest in pedagogical terms.” “Educational criteria are not usually among the priorities of companies and designers; they are rather a secondary dimension,” he adds. Gutiérrez is concerned that the environmental content of the games or the objectives of Playing for the Planet will remain mere “greenwashing.”

Work on energy efficiency

Another objection raised by experts is that, beyond the content of video games, work must be done on their energy aspects. According to what Evan Mills, an energy efficiency expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has investigated the energy impact of video games, explained to OpenMind, “gaming across the US consumes $5 billion in energy, which equates to the electricity consumption of 85 million efficient refrigerators or the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars.”

Mills applauds the efforts of the UNEP-sponsored alliance, but insists that energy efficiency must be integrated into game design and that hardware manufacturers must also be involved, so that the entire gaming experience is also greener. “Our analysis of energy use across 26 gaming platforms and dozens of games found many ways to improve efficiency in gaming hardware; there are opportunities in virtually every component,” he says, including especially the data centres that manage cloud gaming. Energy information about games and platforms is not presented on product packaging, preventing players from making more responsible choices. Finally, there is the need to involve the entire product lifecycle, including waste management.

One of the games of the EarthGames platform. Credit: EarthGames

In the face of all this, another doubt arises: given that there is still a debate about whether violent behaviour in video games encourages violence in the real world, will climate video games serve to create players who are more aware of this problem? “Video games alone are not going to save the world, reduce emissions levels or limit the use of plastics and other waste,” admits Gutiérrez. “Serious games will be useless if they are not accompanied by innovative, solid and well-structured pedagogical programs in which the student becomes aware of how these fictitious problems affect his real life.”

Fortunately, adds Ouariachi, “most empirical studies have verified that serious games on environmental issues can be an effective tool to change people’s minds.” And although there are still no such conclusive data on how this perception translates into real-life and long-term behaviour, Gutiérrez stresses that these games “undoubtedly invite people to take on roles and make decisions, to assess consequences, to differentiate between reality and fiction.” And as Dessler suggests, “any emissions reduction that result will be well worth it.”

Javier Yanes



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